ONE OF THE MOST important figures in the world of classical music in America in the latter part of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, was Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944). Her ties to New Hampshire ran deep. She was born in Henniker and spent her early childhood there, and she also had family connections in the town of Hillsborough. In the last decades of her life, Beach was closely associated with the MacDowell Colony, the famous artist colony in Peterborough.
Amy Beach was an exceptional concert pianist and an inspired composer. She wrote more than 150 works of “high art music” including solo piano pieces; orchestral and chamber music; choral works and other sacred music; and secular songs. Scholar Adrienne Fried Block wrote in her 1998 biography “Amy Beach-Passionate Victorian,” that “Amy Beach was truly an American pioneer as a composer and the first successful woman in the field ...The next generation of women composers found courage in Beach’s record as a pathfinder and model, formalizing her role with the honorific title of dean of American women composers.”
According to the Library of Congress, which has a collection of Beach’s music manuscripts, published scores, and correspondence, “(Her) musical accomplishments changed the way Americans understood the possibilities for women in music.” The University of Missouri at Kansas City also maintains an archive of materials related to Beach, and the University of New Hampshire Library has a rich collection of her papers and photographs. To mark the 150th anniversary of Amy Beach’s birth, UNH organized a special traveling exhibition in 2017 entitled “A Brilliant Life Goes on Tour” which is currently on display in public libraries in the state.
Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker on Sept. 5, 1867. Her parents were 23-year-old Charles Abbott Cheney and Clara Imogene Marcy Cheney, age 21. Charles was originally from Ashland and Clara from Hillsborough, N.H.
Amy was fortunate to be born into a musical family. Both Clara and her mother Amy Eliza Marcy were talented singers. Clara was also a pianist, and her older sister Emma Francis “Franc” Marcy Clement, who visited often, was a voice and piano teacher in Boston. The family recognized early on that little Amy was a musical prodigy.
After the Cheney paper mill was destroyed by fire in 1869 Charles became a paper stock salesman in Boston. His wife and child joined him in 1871 when the family began living in the Boston suburb of Chelsea. That year, when she was 4 years old, Amy began experimenting with her mother’s piano. She played tunes that she had heard, or that she had imagined. When visiting her grandfather in Henniker that summer, she composed three waltzes for piano in her head, which she played for her mother when she returned to Chelsea.
When Amy was 6, Clara began instructing her in formal piano technique and she also started home-schooling her in academic subjects. The Cheneys moved into Boston in 1875, and both Clara and Amy soon became deeply involved in the musical life of the city. Clara found opportunities to sing in choruses, and Amy was fortunate to study under two of Boston’s premier pianists and teachers — Ernst Perabo and Carl Baermann.
In 1881-1882 Amy learned harmony and counterpoint from Junius W. Hill, a professor of organ and piano. This was her only formal instruction in musical composition, though she did pick up technical information from books and other materials. Amy was 16 years old in 1883 when her first composition was published as sheet music—a tune set to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Rainy Day.” Her aunt “Franc” loved to sing that song.
Next week: Young Amy Beach’s performance career in Boston, and her marriage.